9 Success Theories

Have you ever wondered what makes a person successful?

So have I.

I have read about this topic quite a lot and found many explanations.

Sure, there are easy answers, but if you’ve read self-improvement books and magazines, you probably know them already.

Then there are more nuanced answers. Depending on what line of work you’re in and what you want to do, those answers may differ.

This article is about just that — a variety of different examples in which the causes of success may differ.

I’ll go over 9 of theories of success:

Success Theory 1: Energy Levels

Success Theory 2: IQ

Success Theory 3: Conscientiousness

Success Theory 4: Grit

Success Theory 5: Ambition

Success Theory 6: Good Looks

Success Theory 7: Family

Success Theory 8: Luck

Success Theory 9: Stress-Tolerance

“It’s all about the Pentiums.”

Success theory #1: It’s all about energy levels 

Having high energy levels and the ability to get by on low sleep. Which would amount to the ability to push yourself harder than the average person and get more work done. Especially during your 20s and 30s. And this would be a particular advantage in sales or non-creative lines of work.

Someone said America is ruled by the Frequent Fliers, the people who can make the 7 am flight to Dallas for a sales conference and get back in the afternoon for a dinner meeting, and do that several times per week for decades. This kind of schedule selects for people who can get by on little sleep, who take a nap whilst flying, and show up consistently. Like that saying from Woody Allen — “80% of success is just showing up.”

But not all professions are like that.

Success theory #2: It’s all about IQ

People who believe this usually say that success comes down to learning faster or interpreting complex concepts faster than others.

I think you want to be smart enough, but not too smart. Too high IQ or intellectual curiosity detracts from business success — by focusing on the “wrong” things (like a scientist or starving artist)..

Having too many interests is a good way to keep your brain active and healthy, but not necessarily good for making money.

Another drawback of being “too smart” is intellectual arrogance and overconfidence. These people think they are smart enough to predict everything and they make dangerous mistakes because of it. Especially in finance, politics, technology and other high-stakes areas.

Success theory #3: It’s all about conscientiousness 

Conscientiousness 1— consistency, attention to detail, and hard work.

Like Rockefeller keeping his account book without fail for several decades.

People who believe in conscientiousness as a big factor of success, say that certain people have an affinity for working harder and being detailed, and others do not.

It’s easier for conscientious people to fit into an organization and rise to the top because they have an easier time putting their head down and doing the (hard) work than the average person or the entrepreneurial-oriented person.

Success theory #4: It’s all about grit  

People who believe this usually say that the most important trait for success (over the long-term) is psychological resilience. That is, the emotional toughness to persist without giving up, not let yourself be defined by your past as a narrative, and to reinvent yourself boldly.

This may very well be true for entrepreneurs. I doubt it’s true for the average careerist or researcher. Maybe for inventors and scientists though. Definitely for traders and salespeople.

Success theory #5: It’s all about ambition

The genes of a megalomaniac and the willingness to take risk.

Or having a tough childhood and therefore being extra-motivated to succeed. Like 50 Cent, Nas, Dr Dre and Biggie, who said in an interview: “Nobody really influenced me or inspired me to start rapping, I was just trying to get off the streets.”

Success theory #6: It’s all about good looks

Good looks, plus some charisma does wonders for navigating company politics and being likeable. Or so I hear.

People who say this believe that the Halo Effect is one of the most powerful psychological principles. I know a guy whose main asset is his big smile. No joke. The Halo Effect is strong in that one.

Attractive people get treated better than ugly people. A hot girl only needs to do two things: take care of her body, and pick the right man. An ugly girl needs to go to university and study and work harder than the average guy. It’s pretty unfair. But humans are a malleable species, so we make it go around anyway.

I was at a dinner and heard an interesting thing by an acquaintance. She compared good looks and bad looks to the difference of rats and cats. Rats have to be extra resourceful and sneaky because humans find them disgusting, while cats receive preferable treatment and are kept as pets and given food because humans find them cute. Which animal is at an advantage?

Success theory #7: It’s all about being born in the right family

People who believe this usually say that the best advantage one can get is being born into a rich family; preferably with two above-average parents, attending Ivy League schools, being exposed to the brightest and most ambitious peers, and gaining a powerful network.

It’s hard to argue with that. At least with the exposure effect of peers and having a family network.

On the other hand, there are a lot of successful parents whose kids turn out mediocre. Like Tommy Hilfiger’s rapper-son Rich Hill.

This is especially the case in family businesses. There’s a reason wealth rarely lasts more than three generations. The first generation makes it, the second generation inherits it, and the third generation wastes it.

Success theory #8: It’s all about being at the right place at the right time

The simplest example of this is just pure luck. Like walking home one day and finding a winning lottery ticket. But that kind of luck is so rare that I don’t think it’s even worth considering…

A better example would be like the one I gave in my article about Lessons from History. I will quote it here:

The combination of genetic talent and new technology leads to a new distribution of wealth for each generation. A small percentage of young people are better adapted to the new paradigm and/or find themselves in the right place at the right time. Consider Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, they were both talented at the new computing technology and they were born at the point of its inception, gaining access to it years before their peers, thanks to growing up in technologically-savvy families. Bill Gates and Paul Allen also got early access to computers. So, of course, they got a head-start to their learning curve.

Inherent in this line of reasoning is the strong power of survivorship bias. Which, I should add, is only increasing in power in a global-village type world, amplified by improved distribution systems.

Once-in-a-lifetime events now happen weekly.

Peter Thiel noted:

Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.

On another note, I went out partying a lot the first 6 months of 2019. In the clubs they would often play the songs of the new artist Post-Malone.

Surprised by how popular his songs were, I looked him up. He is just 24 years old and looks like a bum. If you saw him in the street you wouldn’t think he’s a multimillionaire who got billions of views on YouTube.

[Laughing all the way to the bank at you fools while smoking weed.}

What exactly is the lesson to be learned by Post-Malone?

That you should have lots of tattoos in your face to increase your chances of going viral? I don’t think there is a lesson–at all.

Success theory #9: It’s all about stress-tolerance

The theory goes something like this: The higher up the ladder you get, the more stressful it gets. Especially in terms of psychological stress.

Consider the CEO of a public company under strong scrutiny of the media. Or the U.S President. Look at these images of Barack Obama and tell me stress doesn’t prematurely age you.

[Like the allostatic overload example in BOOH, about John McCain.]

Similar examples can be found if you google for George W. Bush and Elon Musk. Bush’s hair turned grey. Musk got fat and bloated. There’s no doubt they both have extremely high stress-tolerance, but everyone has a breaking point.

The point I want to make is not “don’t pursue high level positions because it will make you look ugly”. I’m saying, start out with the assumption that you need a certain genetic baseline level of stress-tolerance to even qualify for the position.

Once you’re in the position, your body can handle it, but it’s going to come at considerable cost to your health. And hopefully you deem that cost to be a small price to pay.

***

 

Questions:

  • Which, or how many, of those 9 success theories apply in your line of work?
  • Can you think up another success theory?

 

Read the 10th success theory here.


  1. Referring to the psychographic trait from the OCEAN model.

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Comments

  1. Zachery Moy says

    Nice post Ludvig. I’ve been working on myself for years and I still am striving to be better.

    Fun fact about Post Malone and I’m glad to think I’m not the only one who thinks he looks like a bum. I once said his music is for degenerates (it is). Some grown man threw a hissy fit at me insulting his idol. When your competition is this pathetic all you can do is work on yourself and learn from your mistakes.

  2. A nice intriguing article, albeit a little brief, you could have eleborated a bit more on details and add more examples/stories..

    But the first thing I notices is you didn’t adress the meaning of the word success. What does this word mean to you? External – people consider you sucessfull or Internal – you consider yourself successful.

    For me success means achieving YOUR goals. Feeling content and feeling eudaimonia in your life. So for me this is Internal.

    For achieving this I think there are 2 or 3 most important factors:

    1. Reflection

    First aspect is self-knowledge: to recognize what are your values, your goals, what do you strive for, what do you want your legacy to be and also what actually does the word success means to you. When would you consider yourself successful?

    Another thing is recognizing your weaknesses and strenghts, positioning yourself in such way that you amplify your strenghts and render your weaknesses inpotent. Keep playing the winning game. Do not go for fair fights.

    Second aspect of reflection is feedback. Look at your performance, measure it, think about it, what do you struggle with, adjust you plans to help you better achieve your goals.
    Seek growth, see your progress, look back.

    And third aspect is planning – this could be considered a cathegory on its own. Its up to you how do you recognize it. So its planning according to YOUR values, goals. Keeping it detailed a reviewing it periodically. Making the goals SMART – its an acronym look it up.

    The last aspect (not in any way less important than previous ones) is self-discipling. Its sticking to your plans and doing as stated in plans. But watch out a great discipline in not about following a foolish unreasonable plan. When you struggle with keeping up with the plan you have to adjust it to make it realizable – this is also smart planing.

    Well all theese aspects go hand in hand and when you look you dont need any luck factors – genetics, wealthy familly, good socio-economic standing etc.

    I think succes isn’t about the absolute ie beeing the forbes to 50. Its about taking the “fate” in your hands and “moving” yourself in a more favourable conditions according to your core desires and achieving fullfilment.

    All of this is applicable and universal from the CEOs of S&P500 companies to the poor people of 3rd world countries.

    Feel free to express your opinion. I’m glad for any feedback.

    Regards

  3. The importance of family/birth should not be underestimated. The three-generation pattern is observed only at the very highest levels of success – robber barons and royal dynasties. The fourth and even fourteenth generations may still benefit from their ancestor’s success, if not so dramatically. Famous successes like Ashikaga Takauji, Karl der Grosse, Henry Ford, or John Rockefeller are almost always born privileged; Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Louis the Stammerer, Edsel Bryant Ford, and Michael D. Rockefeller would not be considered successful, but they certainly had advantages over the average peasant. Even today, many descendants of Jakob Fugger are quite wealthy by inheritance.

    For most people, the important factors of inheritance are not property or titles, though. The advantages of being born into the right family are more subtle – stability in childhood, good role models, better schools, and small favors at critical times from relatives. If Daddy can’t give Junior a trust fund, maybe he can afford to get that drug charge dropped, or get his boss to give Junior an internship, or get Grandma to give him her old car. The fifth child of a pot-smoking welfare whore doesn’t get any of those things, and money marries money, so…

    This sort of thing won’t get you (say) Hedge Fund Manager of the Decade, but it works very powerfully to perpetuate socioeconomic class. Success may not be hereditary, but opportunity certainly is. Most successful businessmen I’ve read about have three things in common: they cheat like hell, they sponge off the government, and they started off with a cushion. They were able to learn about business and survive failures when most men would be fully occupied by mere survival, or be wiped out by their first setback.

  4. It would be interesting to refine just what is called “success”. Some of the wealthiest men in history are Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Neither has ever contributed anything of value; both, especially Zuckerberg, have substantially degraded the human condition. Many would consider them successful, but I would prefer a painful death to this kind of “success”.

    Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous painters of all time, and he’s no more dead or poor now than da Vinci. Was he successful? What about Jackson Pollack? (Yes, I know there are people who claim to actually like paintings of dryer lint, but…) Middle class orphan Herbert Hoover became President of the United States – and one of the most hated Americans of the twentieth century. Laura Spelman, of ordinary background, married John Rockefeller and became the mother of a dynasty; who has heard of her?

    Why are there virtually no successful women outside of arts/literature/entertainment? Even an ugly woman gets preferential treatment compared to a man, /mutatis mutandis/ – much more so if she is young and not morbidly obese. Yet there have been hardly any important female inventors, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, financiers, or leaders (except by inheritance). Right now some idiot is trying to make a list of all the famous women he can scrounge up, but the very fact that one can make a list of all the women of even minor import (outside of entertainment, as noted) reveals the truth: such a list of /men/ could not be compiled in a lifetime.

    I think women just don’t value the kind of success that men do, nor do they admire it in other women. How many women would forgo a stable marriage and happy children for the sake of glory, or for money they don’t need? Men do it all the time. If you want to be successful by male standards, you probably *already* have the prime requisite – a Y chromosome.

  5. Summary: it’s mostly genetic.

    • Would you be so very kind to educate us and inform us how you came to such summary? I would love to learn more. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for the great Article Ludvig, I am a fan of the “Ludvig Sunström” RAS ;)

    I’m only 24 but I have always taken on very high amounts of stress, the extent to which I am only starting to notice, is relatively higher than I’ say the average mid size business CEO or decision maker, in order to prepare for the future loads I am planning on taking on. The physical changes due to stress that you write about are something I have been thinking a lot about.

    I love the book “The Happiness Advantage” which talks about how social support boosts thinking quality and resilience. Thanks for the article!

  7. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Ludvig.

    I believe in one of your posts or your book that you mentioned, “find ways to increase your luck surface and opportunities will come.”

    I’ve found this to be something that most people miss and the reason people miss this is rather simple.

    They think information/knowledge alone will increase their luck surface and opportunities will come. Which may be true, however if you dig deeper, you will find that “luck surface” idea shines when you can get extract insights that others missed.

    So it would look something like this:

    Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom -> Insights (useful practical insights vs useless theoretical ideas vs useful practical insights that you can apply to your current business and grow it[more output vs more input])

    Once you have gotten the insights, the next step is to ingrain those insights in your daily decision making so that you can make better decision without the biases that cloud us all the time.

    It’s those insights that you extract which when incorporated within your decision making system takes you to next level.

    Once you have those insights then you can pretty much apply any theory and you will find that you will excel.

    I don’t have high IQ or was born with a silver spoon, never did good at school, I come from a poor war torn family, I dropped out of college. But I built multiple 8 figure business following the strategy I have outlined.

    Last but not least, to me success in this sense means financial success. I believe if you are financially sound and safe then it makes the path a lot clear to achieve other success in life.

    Thank you for reading and good luck!

    • Hello Memento,

      I agree with your idea (Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom -> Insights ). It jibes with the learning process, from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

      “Once you have gotten the insights, the next step is to ingrain those insights in your daily decision making…..”

      –The need for repetition.

      “you will find that ¨luck surface¨ idea shines when you can get extract insights that others missed.”

      –Why did others miss said insight? Perhaps because they did not have the patterns or experience ingrained in their head. So they did not recognize the business opportunity.

      • Hello Ludvig,

        The need for repetition cannot be overstated, for instance I have read “Thinking Fast and Slow” 7 times now and I agree with you as you mentioned in one of your posts that instead of reading new books you read some books again and again.

        I’ve also found you to be the 2nd guy that actually does a daily wrap up, where you talk about your top 3 takeaways, what great ideas you had for the day and how you can have more of those great ideas. I won’t mention the full list because people can buy your TOC to learn more.

        In fact, I have a list of 30 questions I go through on my weekly wrap ups and I use a simple daily wrap up so I can improve my decision making and also improve my pattern recognition.

        In regards with:

        “Why did others miss said insight? Perhaps because they did not have the patterns or experience ingrained in their head. So they did not recognize the business opportunity.”

        I totally agree with you that in order to extract insights you have to ingrain certain pattern recognitions in your head and that can only be done by repeating strategies that help you extract insights.

        I have also found that most people get into patterns of other people instead of making their own patterns so they can always extract insights that will be useful to them.

        The best example of this that I have found is in Chess.

        You will NEVER EVER EVER find an expert chess player get into a pattern that he doesn’t know or a pattern that his opponent tries to get him into. An expert chess player knows what pattern he wants to get into so that he can extract insights because if he can get into a pattern that he has experience with then he can improve his chances of winning, in fact if you can lure in others to your pattern in Chess you don’t even have to remember tactics/strategies you will know what works in that position.

        This is one of the reasons that most people can practice years doing tactical quizzes in chess but they never get that ELO BOOST because they spend their time doing millions of tactics that they can never ever remember. Not that tactics won’t improve your game, it’s just that you are very unlikely to get into a pattern where you can execute those tactics.

        That means to instantly boost your strength in Chess, all you have to do is learn 3-4 patterns and then always get your opponent to those patterns where you clearly know all the insights.

        This same strategy can be applied to life/business. To get insights, get into patterns that you have experience with. If you would like to know more I am more than happy to share my insights from Chess that your readers can use in life/business to beat competition.

        I also believe we live in a world where good and mediocrity are the standard. If you want to be exceptional, if you want to be great, it’s going to require a greater sense of push, a greater drive, and above all a greater sense of questioning things.

        Thank you and keep up the great work!

    • What industries did you create businesses in and why did you choose to enter them?

      • Hello Pavel,

        To answer your questions I have to tell you something so that you know why I was able to build those businesses at first place.

        I started with health industry, I was selling educational leads to colleges/universities and then I got involved with dietary supplements.

        Why I choose them?

        Honestly, when I started I didn’t know anything about business. My goal was to just make money online because I was tired of making pennies at my job I was doing pizza delivery from 6PM to 4AM and I was making $500/month, that is back in 2001-02.

        One night I had enough of BS at my work so when I got back home I looked up “how to make money online” and then I found out you can make money if your website ranks in Google. I started doing research and I found out there are simple sites making $10-$15k a month with Google Adsense.

        I decided to start a website about a game I was passionate about and start writing game strategies. Within a month I was ranking #1 (that is impossible to do today) in Google and I started making $5-6 a day.

        From there on, I launched multiple websites some worked and some didn’t. Eventually I sold out all my content sites and made a good $150-200k in process.

        By then I had already stopped playing games and I knew there is money to be made online and I thought this is my chance to make millions.

        And then the journey started.

        One thing I always tell people who are starting their own business is to “READ” and read and read, the benefit of reading is that you can see further than others, you can learn from mistakes of others so that you can avoid the same mistakes they made and get to your goal faster.

        As Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others it’s because I was standing on the shoulder of giants.” This is so true. I wish there was a blog like this one back when I started, it would have saved decades of my life. It’s fascinating that there are people like Ludvig that spend hours and hours reading and learning and then they distill all that information in an easy to read blogpost.

        People ask me why I read and I tell them you never know what you can learn from another successful man specially if you love their philosophy of life, in Ludvig’s case one of the best takeaways from his book was that I was wasting at least 10 minutes of my life daily swiping left and right to find the Apps that I use for my business. After reading his solution I instantly did what he recommended and now I get extra 10 minutes to read few pages on my kindle.

        It’s a shame that when I look at kids school reading curriculum in my city and many other states it’s joke, complete fking joke, no wonder why we are in an era of snowflakes, entitlements and cry babies.

        Thank you for reading.
        It’s never been easier to make millions than it is right now in this age and time.

      • Thanks for the detailed answer!

  8. Francisco Rafael says

    Hey Ludvig,

    Your post is missing networking ability. I don’t know if this necessarily equates to one human trait, although I suppose it could be a knack for building rapport with the right people.

    I would easily take this trait over IQ. If the list was ranked in order of importance, I would have a hard time leaving networking out of the top three.

    When learning about con artists from shows like American Greed, or even examples such as Wolf of Wallstreet, or Theranos, I’ve often wondered how successful the perpetrators could have been if they had just used that skill to push ANY legitimate idea.

    • Hello Francisco,

      In the case of Theranos, I wonder how important the turtleneck sweater and the speaking in a more masculine voice was to Elizabeth Holmes’ persuasion. I wonder if it helped at all — or just detracted.

      In the case of Adam Neumann of WeWork, he did try a legitimate idea previously. Kneepads for babies. It didn’t go too well. ;-)

      Jokes aside, it’s a good point you make.

    • You make a great point Francisco, recently I was in India and I noticed that in order to make anything happen in India you have to have big network. India opened my eyes to how the world is so different and why a person should travel around the world because travel in itself is an experience and the best part of it is when you are traveling to an unknown place, your child side gets awaken and you explore.

  9. I would offer the counter example for theory #9 on becoming prematurely ugly and that being mostly genetics. There is Elon Musk and Jeff Bezzos who were uglier when they were younger vs. now in high stress positions where they look much better. I would suspect a little propaganda at play in the case of a president.

  10. John Abruskus says

    Theory #10:
    Networking and social skills.

    And I should add this ought to be extended to using a variety of social media and webaites, all with certain norms, depending on their users. Like Reddit Twitter YouTube Facebook Groups and paid forums.

    • John Abruskus says

      Success theory 11:
      Get funded now while capital is at an all-time low. And propose a revolutionary and disruptive idea.

      • Yeah, definetly Communication skills.
        Knowing what people need, where to get it and the ability to make it happen are the only skills a person needs in my opinion. Without this, it would be really hard!

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